The UW’s Forgotten Theater
A century-old arts venue is hidden within a lecture hall.
When people count up the losses attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, Madison’s drama scene won’t be listed as the most tragic. But it suffered a loss nonetheless. University Theatre shut down in March and put its 2020–21 season on hiatus during this period of physical distancing; the Wisconsin Union Theater shut down in March and planned limited-capacity in-person events for the fall. This year, the show must go off, but we at On Wisconsin wish to keep the memory of live drama alive with a look back on a nearly forgotten venue: Bascom Hall Theater.
Don’t worry if you don’t remember the Bascom Hall Theater. Its life was fairly short. Opened in 1927, it was largely abandoned by the thespian community when Memorial Union’s theater wing opened in the 1930s. Today it goes by the rather prosaic name Bascom 272, and it’s a lecture hall. During renovations in 2020, workers uncovered some of that stage history. They found a poster for Cyrano de Bergerac produced in 1929 and graffiti from student actors, including two who would gain national fame: Oscar winner Don Ameche x’31 and radio star Bernardine Flynn ’29.
Bascom 272 was actually the second Bascom Hall Theater — the first was located outside the building, on the western slope of Bascom Hill. In the 1910s and 1920s, students performed on an outdoor stage in front of benches on the hillside. In the mid-1920s, the university decided to build a liberal arts addition onto Bascom Hall, and during construction, that morphed into a theater. The theater opened May 13, 1927, with a production of Outward Bound.
With the Union’s stage and others opening on campus, the university lowered the curtain on Bascom’s history as a theater venue.
Published in the Winter 2020 issue